Technology has certainly made it easier, and generally more pleasant, to be human; forks, spectacles, vaccines, shoes, engines, are just a few examples. And with the possible exception of cutlery, almost every area of human endeavour has seen gradual improvement over the years.
With biochemistry, it has long been possible to genetically modify human DNA, but it was only about two years ago in Shenzhen that things got real.
The case of Chinese twins Lulu and Nana has been widely reported (a detailed account is published in Science, but, to briefly summarise: He Jiankui, a biophysicist, interviewed two couples in Shenzhen in 2017. Both couples had fertility problems, and both husbands were living with HIV, but He had a solution. According to Science, he proposed that using CRISPR, a genome editing tool, he would change a gene in IVF embryos to disable a protein that HIV uses to establish an infection. Both couples volunteered, and it was reported in November last year that one had given birth to twin girls.
Lulu and Nana will have just celebrated their first birthdays, and are unique in the world.
A door has been opened, and according to Gartner’s senior vice president, Emeritus, and distinguished analyst Dale Kutnick, we’re only getting started. Kutnick is a Gartner and industry veteran, and helps CIOs exploit leading-edge technologies. He spoke to Brainstorm recently about what emerging technologies he’s seeing, and their implications.
“Putting aside the religious discussion, I think that, in general, society is going to accept this,” he says, adding that the real question is, would ‘enhancements’ be allowed? “Why wouldn’t we accept it if it enhances our comfort, the length of our lives, our ability to execute tasks and make better decisions?” he asks.
“Human beings are going to adapt to those technologies, just like they did to mobile phones and apps. And the capability is only going to get better in the next 10 years. Genetic engineering is going to change humanity and the trajectory of human evolution. That’s far more significant than anything we’ve seen before, and we’re already on the cusp of it.”
Incidentally, it appears that CRISPR is somewhat of a blunt tool, and, again, according to Science, there’s a much more precise way of editing genes known as ‘prime editing’.
It states, this method doesn’t cut the double helix, but just ‘nicks’ open a DNA strand, aft er which a stretch of new RNA is sent to the site.
Confluence of technologies
Another area he’s interested in is the growing capabilities of artificial intelligence, and thinks it pretty likely that we’ll have very good ‘narrow’ AI for specific tasks such as driving or investing, in the next decade or so. And then there’s the enhancement of humans through AI, which, he says, is going to create all kinds of interesting questions about humans and machines. And, again, we’ll end up accepting this.
Kutnick says it’s when technologies such as CRISPR and AI are combined with quantum computing that we’ll see an evolution.
He sees quantum giving us an exponential leap in compute power, a little like how the AlphaGo program harnessed the power of a number of Google’s datacentres, or Googleplexes, and only then was able to beat the best Go player in the world.
He envisages quantum being used as a catalyst that will unlock weather predictions with greater accuracy (finally), as well as genetic engineering.
Kutnick reckons, however, that it’s still very early days for quantum, and says there are very few quantum computers out there. Google recently announced to fanfare that it had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’.
This unfortunate term is meant to herald the moment in which a quantum machine does something that a classical computer can’t do, or at the least will take too much time to do. Google produced a photograph of CEO Sundar Pichai posing next to its ‘Sycamore Quantum processer,’ his fingers awkwardly perched next to a nest of wires. Google set the machine the task of checking the randomness of a sequence of numbers (or checking the outputs from a quantum random number generator, if you can get your head around that) and it apparently took minutes to produce what would take a supercomputer thousands of years.
IBM was quick to pour cold water on the announcement, saying a classical computer, properly programmed, could have taken a little over a weekend to solve the same problem. But this comes from the company that trumpeted its own ‘first’ quantum machine at CES in 2019, and also went to great lengths to hire someone to design a fancy case for it.
What this all shows is that the competition is fierce, and that those with enough money are continuing to chip away at the problem.
Kutnick estimates that over the next decade and a half, we’re also going to get better at making more efficient batteries that will hold more energy and charge faster.
He says if we can increase the amount of energy harvested from a solar panel from around 20% to 30%, we’ll have more energy than we will ever need.
“You could imagine that, in the next 30 or 40 years, we’re going to move to much more renewable energy. It’s possible, probably in the 30-year timeframe, using quantum computing and AI, that we’re going to solve the fusion equation that’s been hanging up there for years; that would give us, at least in theory, an endless supply of clean energy.”
There is, however, turbulence ahead, he says, similar to what happened around the time of the First Industrial Revolution. There are any numbers of drivers ? increasing inequality, nationalist or fringe groups, or plain incomprehension.
“We are, of course, going to have to fix the mess we’ve made”, he says, but again, he believes we’ll come up with technologies, such as improved carbon capture, to fix that.
“The transition is going to be painful, economically, sociologically, but I do think we’ll get there. I don’t think we’re going to cross the threshold where we’re going to totally destroy the Earth.
“We’re going to make another diving catch. Humanity is really good at that. “I’m an optimist.”
Where’s the sci-fi? (By Adrian Hinchcliffe)
If you believe Flux Trends’ Dion Chang, within 10 years, we’re going to see the rise (excuse the pun) of urban air mobility thanks to an army of flying taxi drones. As city buildings grow higher, and road traffic congestion continues apace, air mobility will change urban centres.
“Rooftops will become the new gold real estate as it becomes a reality,” he says.
“On the African continent that makes more sense, especially if you look at gridlocked traffic in Lagos or Nairobi, or the vast spaces with a small population.”
So in addition to the idea that we’ll have flying drone taxis, what other concepts out of Philip K Dick or George Orwell novels should we be expecting over the next 30 years?
Connectivity and devices will become increasingly invisible, says Flux Trends’ Bronwyn Williams. “We’ll go from an internet to an evernet, where things are connected almost everywhere. WiFi and 5G will become ubiquitous, and augmented and virtual reality start to permeate. Life will become a 4D experience with overlaid technology almost everywhere.
“If we manage to get people up to the Moon and Mars, that will shift perspective quite a lot on Earth,” she adds.
Another trend, and something that’s already taking shape in China, is citizen surveillance.
“Governance in general is shifting to being more automated and controlling populations. Think of China and its social credit score (whereby citizens in a surveillance state are given a social score based on how they behave in real life and online; antisocial and anti-state misdemeanour affect a citizen’s ability to book travel tickets or transact with the state in other ways). India is doing the same thing. If we take on that sort of thing, we could end up with an interesting form of new fascism, or communism-like system, which could take hold in Africa quite quickly,” says Williams.
We’re definitely approaching ‘peak democracy’ as we know it, she adds. “We’re seeing larger, less homogenous populations where a democratic vote upsets half of the population, which makes for a more unstable political environment. This makes governments more interested in a top down population control, with algorithmic control that automates a lot of these processes at the expense of democracy and social liberty as we know it. I think the next century is probably going to be defined by us leaning slightly more to totalitarianism.”
More widespread video surveillance and facial recognition will result in a lot of invisible changes, such as self-censorship. “Our inner lives will become more private as people start to see the consequences of their actions. The ability to be who you really are, freedom of speech and privacy are becoming more of an illusion,” she says.
Article by Brainstorm